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Theatre Is Where The Heart Is

A visit with Clyde Ruffin, Professor, Theatre Department

By Noelle Buhidar
Published: - Topics: theatre Tambourines to Glory Strands Kellogg National Fellowship Holding Up The Sky

Act 1: Theatrical Beginnings

It all began with a church Christmas play featuring shepherds in choir robes and beards made from plastic bags. A young boy sat enthralled in the audience. His mother was the director of the play, and this was his first encounter with theatre. Even though it wasn’t a “high-budget experience,” the characters performing on stage fascinated him.

That boy, Clyde Ruffin, spent the rest of his childhood experiencing more of his mother’s plays, operas, and high school theatre classes. In 1970, he started college at the University of Iowa. “I did not major in theatre as an undergraduate,” says Ruffin. “I actually majored in broadcasting and film.” Though he wasn’t studying theatre, Ruffin couldn’t ignore his passion for the art. “My goal was to be a news anchor,” he admits. “But theatre was where my heart was.”

During this time, the Black Arts Movement, a branch of the Black Power Movement, was in full swing on campus. This initiative promoted the development of the creative arts—dance, music, creative writing, playwriting, acting, and various other types of performance—as a means of instilling political consciousness in African Americans. “When I reached campus, there was already an established group called the Black Action Theatre” says Ruffin. “There was also a kind of revolutionary dance company called the Black Genesis Dance Troupe.” As he became involved with the group, the direction of Ruffin's life changed. The troupe’s work was politically strong; they performed wearing gumboots, berets, bullet belts, and fake rifles. “We were all about the revolution,” he explains. “As a wide-eyed freshman who had been brought up in a sheltered environment, I jumped right in and was ready to rebel.”

The summer after freshman year, Ruffin’s mother introduced him to another side of theatre—costume design. “My mother got it into her head that her sons should learn to do something that was traditionally done by a woman,” he remembers. “So she taught my brother to cook, and she taught me how to sew.” When he returned to school in the fall, Ruffin found a work-study job in the theatre department’s costume shop. There, he did everything from cutting and stitching to dying fabric. By junior year, he was in charge of men’s wardrobe for all of the incoming touring shows. “That gave me an opportunity to work with professional companies passing through,” says Ruffin. “I was able to look at costumes and designs from a close perspective. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, the director of the design program drafted a letter certifying me to work as a designer.” After graduation Ruffin stayed at the University of Iowa and pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree with a focus on performance. When he finished graduate school, he was hired by Washington University as both the designer for their dance program and a teacher of acting.

Act 2: Standing Ovation

Ruffin began a whirlwind theatre career in 1983 when he joined MU as an assistant professor of theatre and Founding Director of the World Theatre Workshop. In 1984, he received the Kellogg National Fellowship, a life-altering award, and spent the next four years traveling around the world. “The Kellogg Fellowship radically changed the way I saw myself,” he explains. “I came back at the end of that experience free from the burden of race. As an African American artist in this country, whether I’m received or not received, I no longer have to apologize for being here. I no longer have to feel that weight of the burden of race that comes with being a minority within a career or in an academic environment in which you are a double minority.” With raised confidence, Ruffin returned to MU with a new vision of life that has influenced everything he has done since that time.

After directing more than 100 productions during his career, Ruffin's 1991 production of Strands received the Kennedy Center Medallion for Artistic Excellence. In addition, he has worked as director, designer, and actor with the Metro Theatre Company, the Cincinnati Playhouse, the Lyceum Theatre, and Fort Worth Shakespeare In The Park. Through his plays, Ruffin strives to help his actors to discover the humanity that exists underneath the script. For him, directing is teaching, and bringing the world of the play to life is an actor’s final exam.

Act 3: Curtain Call

For Ruffin’s recent production Holding Up The Sky, he worked alongside Grammy-nominated storyteller Milbre Burch to transform her short stories into a performance. “We looked at her stories, and I pulled out the ones that intrigued me,” he recounts. “Then we looked for similar themes running through these stories and found that there was a theme of war and selfishness, and restoration and renewal. So we developed a script that focused on these issues.”

The world of Holding Up The Sky is “between time and space.” Ruffin describes the play as being primitive and multicultural with a simple storyline that allows the audience to focus on the humanity of the characters and the issues they are confronting. “I’m mostly excited about this play because it speaks to my original experience from the ‘70s, that theatre and the performing arts can be used not only to address important topical issues that are relevant to the struggles we are confronting globally right now,” he says, “but that theatre can also be used as a vehicle to promote positive change in the way people think about these issues, and the way they see themselves as either a contributor or someone who is a part of the process of change and healing.”

With that, Ruffin thinks back on what he has just said and sighs, adding an insight that reflects the thoughts and career of a young boy turned actor, designer, and director: “It’s wonderful.”

Update: The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival has chosen Holding Up The Sky to advance to the regional round of competition. Missouri is part of a six-state region in which only four productions are invited to proceed to the regional round.